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September 23, 2016

When given options, do we always choose the best one?

School choice is all over the news. John Oliver recently lambasted charter school programs. Donald Trump promised $20 billion to increase parents’ choice options.  The NAACP has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. But how does school choice play out for ordinary families?

In essence, parents have two routes to exercise their consumer rights in education: choosing where they live and where they send their child to school. The fundamental premise behind “school choice” as an education reform are that options not only allow parents to select the school that best meets the needs of their child but it also breeds competition, thereby forcing schools to improve. We’ll leave the competition argument for another time and just focus on how parents make their decisions.

These days, it’s not unusual to find real estate websites boasting better school statistics than state education agencies, because they want to enhance the idea that parents can move to a “good” school district. Many of my friends have asked me where they should move with their toddler so that they can send their child to a high-quality school. Note: this option is typically more available for families with the means to move easily and afford a home in the districts perceived as “good.”

However, research from UCLA has shown that even middle- and high-income parents tend to choose schools based on the opinions of others in their network more than actual investigation of school characteristics. Of the parents who moved in order to be in a particular school district, less than a quarter actually visited the new school, and the majority did not look up test data for the district they were leaving. Such practices exacerbate racial and class-based segregation, as high-minority and lower-income schools are perceived as “bad” and low-minority, low-poverty schools are seen as “good.”

Policy makers and advocacy groups tend to focus more on the second avenue for choice, as they have little influence over parents’ housing choices. Magnet schools, in-district transfers, private schools, charter schools, and private school voucher programs are all choices individual school districts and communities provide to families. Basic economics tell us that in order to have healthy competition, consumers must have access to as many options as possible, as well as the necessary information to help them in making their decision.

The first reality we must face is that schools are a geographic commodity.  Most parents don’t want to send their child on a two-hour bus ride every morning to get to the school across town, so they are limited to schools that are in close proximity.  Second, it is extremely difficult to judge schools objectively. We have ample test data available, thanks to No Child Left Behind, but even if parents know how to access and understand test scores, they are highly correlated with poverty and race, so it does little to explain student growth or school climate.

Evidence from two cities with high levels of school choice show that parental choice and school behaviors tend to increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.In Washington, DC, parent preferences on a web-based application found that parents prioritized demographic preferences and geography over academic achievement. The authors also cautioned that open-choice programs could actually decrease pressure on schools for academic achievement, given parental preferences for particular demographic characteristics.

Choiceblog

Studies from Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin of the post-Katrina system in New Orleans found that schools often found ways to recruit high-achieving students and push out students who were harder to serve, leaving these students with little, if any, choice.  Top-performing schools enrolled disproportionately large numbers of white, non-poor, and non-disabled students.

Sure, families want choice. Who doesn’t like choice? But we also have to make sure that we give families the tools to make good choices that benefit all students.

For more on school choice, check out this visual breakdown we created of what this popular reform strategy looks like by the numbers.

Filed under: CPE — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 7:00 am





December 9, 2015

Some urban districts are ‘choice-friendly.’ So what?

The Fordham Institute today released a ranking of 30 cities according to which ones were the most “friendly” in terms of encouraging and supporting school choice. Topping the list is New Orleans followed by Washington DC and Denver – the only cities to receive an overall grade of B or better.

So what did these cities do to earn these bragging rights? Fordham scored each city on 50 indicators in three domains:

Political support based on interviews with local policymakers and important stakeholders;

Policy environment that, among other things, places no limits on the number of charters, funds them adequately and has quality controls in place; and

Quantity and quality
of choices.

Fordham apparently doesn’t grade on a curve. Almost half of the cities earned Cs and nearly as many got Ds. Albany NY, has the distinction of earning the only F. According to the authors, landing at the bottom of the list means you were deemed “downright hostile” to school choice.

I suppose this is useful information if you are a school choice advocate (Hey, LA: not looking so good with that C-!). But for those who are ambivalent, the ranking omits an important piece of information: how well the city’s schools perform. We’re Americans. Of course we think choice is good. But mostly what parents want are good schools. And being “choice friendly” is no guarantee the choices will be better.

Consider that Charlotte NC and Austin TX are the top-performing urban districts in the nation. Their 2015 NAEP scores in math were not just higher than other participating districts, they were higher than the overall average for the nation as a whole. According to Fordham, neither is a choice-friendly city. Charlotte and Austin respectively ranked 27th and 29th out of the 30 cities in the report. On the other hand, Detroit ranked in the top 10 yet produced the lowest scores in the NAEP urban sample.

This is not to say being “choice friendly” caused low performance. DC, for example, has been one of the highest improving districts in the country on NAEP and was ranked second on Fordham’s list. But it does show that choice for choice sake is not a school improvement strategy. For more evidence see our recent report on school choice.

To its credit, the Fordham Institute advocates for more accountability for student results in the design of choice programs. I also recognize the limitations in the available data. But ranking on “choice friendly” policies doesn’t tell the public what they really need to know: is this helping all students succeed? From what we have found, the promise of school choice has been largely oversold.

Filed under: Charter Schools,NAEP,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 4:46 pm





October 28, 2015

School choice + objective information = Real choice

image001 (2)Giving parents and students the ability to choose their school is promoted by supporters as the key to improving American education overall. On the surface, the idea has great appeal. Who, after all, opposes having choices?

Indeed, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have embraced school choice in various forms that range from opening up alternatives within the public school system to providing taxpayer dollars to students to take to private schools. But for all the rhetoric, does school choice live up to its supporters’ claims?

The Center for Public Education strove to get to the bottom of these questions in our newest analysis which we’ve titled quite simply, School Choice: What the research says. This handy at-a-glance overview of school choice in all its permutations, describes each of the alternatives, provides a quick look at related state policies, calculates the proportion of the school-aged population it serves and, most importantly, distills what the research says about its impact on student achievement.

It’s a comprehensive and unbiased look at one of the most frequently touted strategies among school reformers. Because what we’ve learned is that choice, in and of itself, is not an effective strategy. It’s just a catchphrase.






June 10, 2015

Nevada bets the schools’ bank

Nevada is known for gaming. That could explain why lawmakers there are willing to gamble on the delivery of public education in the state by passing the most sweeping school choice bill in the nation.

SB 302 (the bill has no name that I could find) offers Nevada public school parents a grant that they can use to pay for private school, online courses, or homeschooling expenses for their child. The roughly $5,000 per student subsidy will be deposited in individual education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents who leave public traditional and charter schools. The cost will be deducted from the state per-pupil allotment that would have otherwise gone to the child’s resident school district.

ESAs are not unique to Nevada. Arizona, Florida and Tennessee provide similar grants to parents whose children have special needs or, in the case of Arizona, are currently attending a low-performing school. Other states like Indiana and Florida provide state-funded vouchers to qualifying families that are similar to ESAs but are typically restricted to use in private schools only. What truly distinguishes the Nevada program from these others, however, is its universality. While other states limit eligibility, Nevada opens up ESAs to every child who has been enrolled in a public school for at least 100 consecutive days prior to applying for the grant. Officials estimate that the bill will affect 93 percent of all school-aged children in the state.

School choice advocates are relishing in the unprecedented scale of the Nevada bill in the belief it will give them a chance to do something decades of choice experiments across the country have failed to do  – demonstrate that a free market approach to education will drive school improvement. Education Week reports that the bill was drafted with the help of several national pro-school choice organizations, including the Goldwater Institute, the Freidman Foundation and the Foundation for Excellence in Education through its lobbying arm, Excel National.  Following its passage, Excel National released a statement saying, “This is a monumental leap forward in the fight for student-focused policies that allow every child the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

But will SB 302 offer this opportunity? Here’s what Nevada is gambling:

Gamble #1: Private schools will want ESA kids. Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. Yet three years into the program, two-thirds of the state’s private schools are declining to accept voucher students. This is perhaps one reason only 4% of students who are eligible to participate are taking advantage of the state vouchers.  Even if a Nevada private school will accept ESA students, there’s no guarantee the school will take all who apply. For one, there may not be available seats. For another, there could be admissions criteria that screen for the most desirable students.

Gamble #2: ESAs will benefit low-income students. Children with disabilities or from families at or below 185 percent of the poverty line qualify to receive 100 percent of the state per-pupil allocation, currently about $5,700 per year. All other students are able to receive a grant equal to 90 percent, or $5,100. Nationally, the average yearly tuition at private schools was $10,740 for the 2011-12 academic year. Elementary schools, which tend to be cheaper, cost an average of $7,770. While Nevada may have some more affordable options available, families are certain to run into tuitions that exceed the ESA. Those who can afford to supplement the costs will do so, but low-income families are not likely to be among them. This begs the question – rather than opening up opportunities for all Nevada children, will the state be subsidizing private education for those who are in a better position to afford it anyway?

Gamble #3: Choice schools will be better schools. This is the basic premise underlying all choice arguments — that when parents are given the opportunity, they will choose a better educational fit for their child who will in turn perform better. This is not to say that parents do not want to make a good choice or are incapable of choosing well. They do and they are. However, it does assume that the simple act of allowing parents to opt in produces better results. And the track record on choice policies to date is really weak.

CPE has reviewed research on various educational options, including charter schools, voucher programs, virtual schooling and homeschooling. (A concise overview of all these findings will be published later this year.) The best that can be said is that school choice works for some students sometimes, is worse for some students sometimes, and is often no better or worse than the public school students attended before. Research on voucher programs, for example, shows some gains for minority and/or low-income students, while most studies show similar performance to public school students. One exception may be higher graduation rates. In addition, our earlier report on virtual schooling found, with the exception of a few noteworthy instances, there was little to commend in full-time online schooling for most students, and that even single courses had their risks.

Good data on homeschooling is non-existent. Anecdotes about the Tim Tebows and other homeschool success stories get wide play, many of which you can find here. Less heard are the stories about when homeschooling goes wrong – voices that are just beginning to emerge, for example, here and here. What is missing is a picture of how homeschooled students fare overall.

Nevada’s bill attempts to hedge its bets when it comes to quality control over school choices by requiring all ESA recipients to take standardized tests in math and English language arts. Participating private schools must further report the aggregated results of these tests to the Nevada Department of Education, which will publish the data. No performance thresholds or consequences are defined, however, so it’s unclear what, if anything, would happen if the ESA students don’t get the quality education they were promised.

And that, my friends, is a huge gamble.  — Patte Barth

Filed under: Charter Schools,Parents,Public education,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 7:30 am





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